Missouri Valley, Big Sky, CAA lead the way
A myriad of factors go into ranking the best conferences in FCS college football.
They include the number of ranked teams, who's playing who and who's beating who out of conference, playoff victories and, well, the still-important eye test.
Going into the 2019 season, every conference is ready to pound its chest and show its might.
Here’s a ranking of the FCS conferences:
1. Missouri Valley Football Conference
Still No. 1 behind FCS dynasty North Dakota State and the emergence of South Dakota State as a regular top-five program.
Non-conference litmus tests: UC Davis at North Dakota State (Sept. 21) and Northern Iowa at Weber State (Sept. 28)
2. Big Sky Conference
National runner-up Eastern Washington is No. 4 in the Athlon Preseason Top 25, but closely followed by No. 5 UC Davis, No. 8 Montana State and No. 9 Weber State.
Non-conference litmus tests: Eastern Washington at Jacksonville State (Sept. 14) and UC Davis at North Dakota State (Sept. 21)
3. CAA Football
Preseason No. 2 James Madison, No. 6 Maine and No. 11 Towson headline a conference that had a record six playoff qualifiers last year.
Non-conference litmus tests: James Madison at West Virginia (Aug. 31) and Maine at Colgate (Sept. 21)
4. Southern Conference
Close games were rampant across the SoCon last season as Wofford, ETSU and Furman shared the championship.
Non-conference litmus tests: Towson at The Citadel (Aug. 31) and Furman at Georgia State (Sept. 7)
5. Southland Conference
Ten of the 11 teams return their top quarterback. Preseason favorite Nicholls, UIW and Lamar went to the playoffs, and Sam Houston State expects to be back there.
Non-conference litmus tests: UIW at UTSA (Aug. 31) and Sam Houston State at North Dakota (Sept. 14)
6. Ohio Valley Conference
It seems only Southeast Missouri or Eastern Kentucky can keep Jacksonville State from capturing a sixth straight OVC title.
Non-conference litmus tests: Eastern Washington at Jacksonville State (Sept. 14) and Eastern Kentucky at Indiana State (Sept. 14)
7. Ivy League
Princeton and Dartmouth went a combined 19-1 last season, but 2017 champ Yale was picked as the league's preseason favorite.
Non-conference litmus tests: Colgate at Dartmouth (Sept. 28) and Yale at Richmond (Oct. 19)
8. Big South Conference
Hampton and North Alabama are strong additions to a conference in which Monmouth is chasing two-time national quarterfinalist Kennesaw State.
Non-conference litmus tests: Kennesaw State at Kent State (Sept. 7) and Monmouth at Montana (Sept. 21)
9. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
North Carolina A&T has won the Celebration Bowl three times in four years, but talented Florida A&M is under NCAA sanctions and not eligible for the postseason.
Non-conference litmus tests: Elon at North Carolina A&T (Aug. 31) and Southern at Florida A&M (Sept. 21)
10. Northeast Conference
Duquesne is favored in an NEC that seems to have a different winner each season. Central Connecticut State and Sacred Heart will mount a formidable challenge.
Non-conference litmus tests: Bryant at Stony Brook (Aug. 29) and Duquesne at New Hampshire (Sept. 28)
11. Patriot League
Colgate is the only Patriot program with a winning record in each of the last two seasons. Long-time power Lehigh seeks to rebound behind former Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore.
Non-conference litmus tests: Maine at Colgate (Sept. 21) and Holy Cross at Yale (Sept. 21)
12. Southwestern Athletic Conference
Most of the top SWAC teams have veteran lineups, led by defending champ Alcorn State and West Division champ Southern.
Non-conference litmus tests: Alcorn State at McNeese (Sept. 14) and Nicholls at Prairie View A&M (Sept. 14)
13. Pioneer Football League
San Diego has won 29 straight league games, but may not be as strong this season as Dayton and Drake give chase. PFL teams are only 9-51 in FCS non-league games since 2016.
Non-conference litmus tests: Duquesne at Dayton (Sept. 21) and Harvard at San Diego (Sept. 21)
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)